People give props to Sam Raimi for his most excellent Spider-Man film and often credit him for reviving the sagging comic book movie market, but Raimi didn’t cut his teeth on comic-like heroes with the wise-cracking webslinger. Twelve years before directing Tobey Maguire through his transformation into Kirsten Dunst’s boyfriend, Raimi put Liam Neeson through his own special kind of hell in 1990’s criminally-forgotten Darkman. And since the 90’s era of gaming is best summed up as, “That came out in theaters? We better get a version on Nintendo!”, it didn’t take long for developer Painting By Numbers, fresh off their NES adaptation of RoboCop 2, to hustle this sucker out the door and into our hot little hands. That’s right: before Jedi Power Battles, before The Phantom Menace, this was the first opportunity gamers had to fight evil as the personal incarnation of Liam Neeson, AKA “Schindler’s Fist”.
Darkman on the NES is a 2D platformer with the player cast in the role of Dr. Peyton Westlake, a man on the cusp of a phenomenal scientific discovery. Westlake has devised a synthetic skin to aid in the recovery of burn victims. His formula isn’t perfect as the skin begins to degrade upon contact with direct sunlight, offering roughly an hour and a half of stability, but he’s got plenty of time to improve upon it. Or at least he did until his girlfriend, an attorney with an open case against the corrupt Strack Industries, left an incriminating memo in his lab. Strack’s crew tracks the memo to Peyton’s lab and nearly kills the good doctor by beating the crap out of him, shoving his face through several glass cabinets, dunking him in boiling liquid, and incinerating him in a gas explosion. Just the sort of happy fun-time story you’d expect to find on the NES.
Against all odds Westlake survives, undergoes a procedure where doctors sever the receptors in his nerve endings which eliminates his ability to feel pain, and returns to his lab. Using photos he snaps of Strack’s henchmen, Westlake blends his synthetic skin to create masks that mimic their own faces and starts destroying his way up the criminal ladder, revenging himself upon the criminal underworld as the vigilante Darkman. (I’m not spoiling anything here, by the way–the game tells you all of this in its opening sequence).
The game plays out in a series of short side-scrolling levels where you look for the chemicals required to synthesize a new batch of skin. They’re reminiscent of earlier NES hits like Ninja Gaiden and Sunsoft’s Batman, with Darkman using his adrenaline-fueled powers to run, jump, climb walls, and beat bad guys to death with whatever’s handy. The game uses some unique ways of interacting with the scenery, with techniques like crossing tightropes by using the A and B buttons on the controller to control your balance, or offering up a level where Darkman hangs off a rope attached to a helicopter as Durant attempts to drag him through traffic. These are welcome additions to the tired platforming genre, and it was nice to see developer Painting By Numbers taking the time to make this more than a simple run-and-jump experience of which there were already plenty on the NES.
In addition to the challenges offered by the stages themselves, Darkman sees you impersonating a variety of people over the course of the game, and each one of those people acts differently from one another. As Darkman you are limited to punches and kicks to attack. Pauly, your first victim, prefers to bludgeon his foes with a baseball bat while wearing a pink shirt – guess he forgot to separate the colors from the whites while doing laundry – so you need to get used to his style in both senses. Skip, the second henchman, has only one leg because his other doubles as a gun; this gives him a nice ranged attack, but the recoil on it pushes you back a bit each time you fire so if you get too trigger-happy you can knock yourself right off a ledge.
Smiley, victim number three, is an acrobat whose skills are second-to-none, has a deadly kick, and hurls shuriken with pinpoint accuracy. On the down side, he controls like a spastic gymnast on a cocaine bender, meaning you’ll be flying all over the place if you don’t slow down and take it easy. Finally comes the conflict with Durant, which plays out atop a skyscraper still under construction. Durant’s armed with a pistol but suffers none of Skip’s balance issues, so feel free to unload on bad guys all day. Unlike the film Darkman never winds up confronting Strack at the end, bundling the whole experience into Durant’s stage, which is kind of a let-down but I assume this was done in order to complete the game on time. It was released a year after the film after all, and was presumably greenlit after the film’s successful box office run rather than before like most film licenses.
So that’s the upside. On the downside, the stages are far from realistic, even by comic book-style film standards. I’ve never been to Central Park, but I’m reasonably certain they don’t allow anybody to set random saw blades running back and forth on fallen trees or feature floating wooden platforms that swoosh back and forth over lakes filled with deadly fish. Then again, it’s New York so who can be sure? In any case, there’s no sense of actual flow between many of the short stages. In the afore-mentioned Central Park sequence, Darkman climbs up ladders and dodges gun-toting enemies in a vertically-scrolling stage, only to reach the top and begin the next segment of his journey back down on the ground again with no explanation of why he was doing all this climbing in the first place. At least the vertical stages in the skyscraper level make some sense, but what is there to do ten stories up in the middle of Central Park? Also, that sound Darkman makes when he’s coming to a stop? It will make you want to stuff wax in your ears with all that high-pitched squealing. None of the sound effects are particularly impressive, but good lord could we have done without that one.
Intercut with the platforming bits are some first-person screens where you dodge the guns of Strack’s henchmen in order to shoot pictures of the bad guy you’re intending to impersonate next. Snapping pics of higher quality and good focus mean a better accuracy to the mask you will create, and give you more time to get through the next set of levels after which you’ll confront one of the game’s bosses. Each level runs on a timer, and it’s not terribly forgiving of mistakes, so expect to do a lot of continuing until you get used to the way each henchman controls. One other sore point: when you confront the stage boss, your sprite and his are identical. In the middle of a fight, especially if there’s a lot of jumping and switching spots, it can be hard to remember which one is supposed to be you. I understand the hardware limitations and time necessary to create twice as many sprites, but surely they could have done something to differentiate us from the other guy, especially since after the fight we revert back to the regular Darkman sprite. There’s no reason to maintain the disguise once you’ve reached the guy you’re trying to kill. Come to think of it, the disguise doesn’t do you any good in the levels prior to the fight since everyone you cross paths with is apparently a traitor who attacks you anyway, but we’ll put that down to “Nintendo logic” and shrug our shoulders. Walking through stages without any enemies to fight would be boring, so I guess they had to make some compromises.
The cinematic version of Darkman you can watch on DVD is nothing short of chest-poundingly awesome. It’s honestly one of the best video game- and comic book-style films ever made, and since it’s based on neither a comic or a game, that’s high praise. Word has it Raimi wanted his first major Hollywood feature to be a Batman story, then went after The Shadow as a second choice after Tim Burton was tapped to direct Michael Keaton’s first outing as the caped crusader. That fell through as well, so Raimi wrote his own short story about a vigilante crime fighter and pitched it around until Universal finally bit and gave him the go-ahead. All I can say is to this is, “Thank goodness.” And “thank you” to Painting By Numbers (and their publisher, Ocean) for making good on a film licensed title on the NES. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than most of the crap published by LJN and it does so with a style that is not only unique but works very well for what it’s trying to do. Definitely worth adding to the collection.